2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational: A Race Report by Dennis Staley
WARNING: This report is long-winded, contains typos, and is likely to be quite uninteresting to anyone other than my Mom. And even she might get bored
Dénouement: Winter Lake to Anchorage
Upon reaching the finish line I checked my Garmin InReach Satellite Messenger, to find a message from Tracy Thelen, my MTB coach, congratulating me for finishing and informing me that I was the first 130 mile racer to reach Winter Lake Lodge. That was a pretty sweet message to receive, and in all my eloquence all I could come up with for a response was “holy shit."
The racer accommodations at Winter Lake Lodge consisted of a crowded, wall-tent with a small woodstove as the sleeping space, with a makeshift port-a-potty behind it. I stashed my bike near the main lodge. We were only allowed into the commercial kitchen. Looking forward to getting out of the wind, I proceeded inside, immediately removing my boots and washing my hands per explicit pre-race instruction. Everyone was super-friendly, and in quick order I had a beer and burrito in front of me. Jill and Kim were finishing up their food when I arrived, and we were all happy to be out of the wind and sharing our stories of the previous 7 miles of trail. I was able to send out messages via my satellite messenger letting family and friend know I'd finished. Apparently I didn't need to do this, as my wife Kim, my sister, my Mom and Dad, and several friends had been watching my blue flag on the Trackleaders site. They knew I had won before I did! Ben Pysto walked in about 30 minutes after I sat down to eat, and Pam Todd was not too far behind him.
The rest is a bit of a blur. I retired to the sleeping tent, where I found a spot underneath the sign-in table to unpack my sleeping bag. I crawled in and fell into a surprisingly good night’s sleep, waking only occasionally as the 350 mile racers departed for Puntilla. At one point I recognized Kim Riggs, and gave her a thumbs up, psychically wishing her good luck for the remainder of her race.
Around 7:30 the next morning I woke up and headed up to the Lodge to inquire about the status of the flight back to Anchorage. The volunteer reported that a plane would be arriving around 10AM, and since I had arrived first that I would have first-dibs on a seat. I slowly ate my breakfast (so that they wouldn’t throw me out of the kitchen), and then headed back out to repack my bags and prepare for the flight. Pam and I also took pictures of each other at the finish line, as it was far too windy, cold, and dark to do so the previous evening. Around 9:45 AM, we pushed our bikes to the end of the runway and awaited the bush plane back to Anchorage. Shortly thereafter we were on the plane, and about an hour later we were safely back in the city.
It’s hard to sum up the experience. This was the craziest, most fun, and most surprising athletic experience of my life. I enjoyed every second of the race. It was truly a privilege to line up at the start with some of the finest winter endurance athletes in the world, and even better getting to know them over the next 130 miles. The race organizers, volunteers, and local residents who let us invade their homes and businesses were a huge part of making this experience so enjoyable.
In the hours following finishing, there was no chance in hell that I wanted to participate in the 350, even though I had earned an automatic qualification in a future year by winning the 130 mile race. After 24 hours, I thought “hmmm, maybe…” Now, a couple weeks later, my legs are fresh and my saddle sores have healed, and I can’t stop thinking about getting back to Alaska and riding to McGrath. I may be thousands of miles away from that thin white line in Alaska, but my thoughts are never far from the Iditarod Trail.
I’m 41, have a fake hip, and you never know what curveballs life will throw at you. But I am hopeful that I’ll be back in 2 years to test my mettle in the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race. Bill Merchant has been quoted saying: “We go into the Alaskan backcountry to find cracks in ourselves. We go back a year later to see if we've done anything about them.” I certainly found many cracks on the snowy trail between Knik Lake and Finger Lake. With a little luck and a lot of training over the next two years, I’ll figure out what I’ve done about them, and hopefully will discover a few more on the trail to McGrath.
Answers to questions I had before the race:
Judd Rohwer, who had completed the 350 the prior year, was kind enough to answer some questions I had prior to the race. In order to keep the experience more of an adventure, I did not want to ask too many questions. But, there were two specific questions I had that would better inform my decision-making process for packing and planning. I’ll provide my answers (not Judd’s) to my questions, based on my experiences, below.
1) How hard is the route finding?
Route finding was surprisingly easy, even after the weather took a turn for the worse. The route was pretty obvious leading up to Flathorn Lake with the exception of the Y on the snowmobile trail at mile 21.5. There were spectators on fatbikes who were very helpful in pointing out the correct trail. Even if I had proceeded down the wrong branch, I would have discovered my mistake quickly based on the GPS track.
On the river the trail was easy to follow. There were stakes that loosely defined the route, and kept riders away from open water (Cindee at King Bear Lodge said that the snowmobilers maintain those stakes with changing river conditions). Judd’s tip about the “Y’ at mile 34.5 (bear right) certainly saved some hand-wringing and stress. All of the checkpoints and unofficial stops were very obvious, as was the trail between Skwentna and Shell Lake Lodge. After Shell Lake the trail was a bit more “rustic,” though there were often stakes in areas where it could get confusing. These stakes were helpful during the brief heavy snow squall and the ground blizzard. At no point in the 130-mile distance did I feel lost.
2) Is food/water available at the checkpoints all day/night?
I arrived at Yentna Station at 12:30AM and there were people making grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, and water (hot and cold) were both available. The “trail angel” at King Bear Lodge was awake and serving breakfast at 8:30AM. Pam Todd bivied a few hundred yards from King Bear Lodge because she arrived around 4am, and it did not appear that anyone was stirring. I arrived at Skwentna and Shell Lake during the day, and both were fully operational. We were told at the pre-race meeting that the hours at Shell Lake Lodge were 9am – 8pm. Winter Lake Lodge was running 24 hours per day, but they powered down around 10pm, so I’m not sure if they were cooking or not. Beverages and hot/cold water were available, and racers received one free burrito. I ate my free burrito just after finishing (around 8pm), and then I purchased a breakfast burrito in the morning.
Sleeping arrangements were available at Yentna Station, Skwentna Roadhouse, and Winter Lake Lodge. Yentna was $21 for half a bed. I think Swentna was around $60, and the tent at Winter Lake Lodge was free. If you wanted a cabin, you’d have to reserve it well in advance and cough up around $2500 per person, minimum 2 people…
3) Other things a rookie should be aware of, without spoiling the adventure?
Bring cash. Approximate costs were as follows:
- Yentna Station: grilled cheese, soup, and coke = $14. Bed = $21. Grilled Cheese and coffee = $12. I also tipped $10.
- King Bear Lodge “Trail Angel”: food and beverage were free, but she wanted a hug, me to sign the guestbook, and a tip. I tipped $20
- Skwentna Road House: plate of spaghetti and coke = $28. I tipped $12.
- Shell Lake Lodge: I did not eat, but food was available for purchase. I do not know the cost. I filled a Wampak with water for free, but tipped $5.
- Winter Lake Lodge: First meal is free. Second meal was $12. I also bought a coke ($4) and a beer ($7 or $8), and tipped $20. Flight from Winter Lake to Anchorage was free for 130 mile racers.
(Tracy's note - I always encourage my athletes to sit down after the race to look at what worked, what we need to improve and what went wrong. It's a great way to learn from a race, even a successful race like this.)
- I had an amazing amount of support at home. Even during her illness, my wife was incredible in her encouragement of this undertaking. Not to mention her good humor in dealing with all the weird stuff I did preparing for this race. (Leaving a perfectly good warm house to ride in horrible weather and sleep outside, testing headlights in the freezer and then all the gear purchases and returns...) Without her buy-in and unwavering confidence in my, there was no way I would have been able to pull this off. My mother-in-law who had traveled to AK to spend time with her daughter while I was racing was there to help me talk through the pre-race decision of even making it to the starting line or to go home. She also made sure I was very well fed before the race. In addition, I had a ton of support from my parents, co-workers and friends. And of course, then group of Gilpin County crazies who like riding bikes in the snow, wind and cold and made some of the lower points during training both bearable and fun.
- I was lucky. I managed not to get bogged down in the storm by staying right at its leading edge. The trail conditions I experienced were way better than it was for the folks who were only a few hours behind me.
- I was able to keep myself in a very good mental place throughout the race. At no point did I think about quitting. I did have a few low moments on the river, which were “cured” with some hydration and snacks. I need to remember that when I start feeling down, or questioning why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing, it means my blood sugar is low and I need to eat and drink. This was a valuable lesson learned during long solo training rides in the dark and cold Leadville winter night.
- I like committing races. It was really, really expensive to bail, with the flight out of Yentna around $250. That’s plenty of motivation for me to keep pedaling. I’d rather buy bike stuff.
- Tracy put together an amazing training plan that got me in the best shape of my life. Long training rides, lots of intervals on gently inclined trails and the pavement on Lookout Mtn, double sessions, strength training and stretching, tempo walks with a full pack. I’d walk on hot coals now if that’s what Tracy put on the training calendar.
- Long Leadville rides the night before grooming (they groom on Tuesday and Friday mornings, so I on Thursday nights). This was good preparation for the various snowmobile trails that compose the Iditarod Trail.
- Practice bivys and stopping on shorter training rides to unpack/repack the gear, and stove practice. This got me comfortable with my gear, my ability to quickly pack and unpack without getting cold, and confidence that I could survive a cold bivy without too much discomfort.
- Shitty snow conditions at home. Brainard Lake hike-a-fatbike, Golden Gate tech, in the snow, on studded tires, and generally crappy Gilpin County snow conditions and wind. These prepared me mentally for slow slogs, and improved my bike handling in soft conditions, and got me used to cold headwinds. The snow conditions on the Iditarod Trail (at least the part I rode) were an improvement over much of what I experienced on my training rides.
- Training at high elevation, on steep terrain. This made the flat, sea-level trail feel relatively easy.
- Sound advice from Tracy for the past several months, followed up by a last-minute, strongly worded text the day before the race that honed my focus and desire to complete the race when I was still debating if I should scratch to go home and take care of Kim: “You MUST be able to focus on the race. From the time it starts until the time you reach the finish. Will you be able to do that?” And then another one that helped me clear my head and distill things down to the basics: “Ride your bike. Be smart. Have fun. Enjoy the experience.”
- Garmin Satellite Messenger. It was awesome to be able to check in with friends and family. I only sent a few texts from it because I didn’t want to stop for the entire second day, but it was really great to get some messages of encouragement. I think it also relieved some of the dot-watching stress on my Mom and Dad, as I was able to let them know that everything was fine, I was just stopping for food or a nap. Also, I received a text from an undisclosed source on Monday morning telling me I was in second place. This lit a fire under my ass and gave me the motivation to push a little harder and maybe even win the 130.
- AA Batteries. It was really nice to have a GPS and headlamp that uses AA batteries. My satellite messenger uses rechargeable USB, so I only had to bring along a single backup USB battery pack, which would be sufficient for over a week of messenger use. I had plenty of spare AA batteries with me for lighting and navigation.
- Revelate Designs. I absolutely loved every piece of gear of theirs, with the exception of wishing the framebag had a bit more capacity. It doesn’t quite fill up the entire triangle, and could be a bit wider without causing any trouble. I might go with a custom bag for the next race.
What didn’t work or could be tweaked?
(Tracy's note - this is the important part of a post race review. While race conditions will never be the same again, it's vital to learn from any small errors or miscalculations. Even if it's something that the athlete can't control, we can learn to manage it better.)
- Upper body layering could use improvement. This system worked well in training, but the race was a lot more humid that what is typical in Colorado. I’m wondering if I could replace part or all of the vest/windshirt/nano-air with a nice breathable but warm softshell. If it works, this would reduce the amount of stuff I was carrying and hopefully add a bit more weather-resistance when it’s snowing lightly.
- Bring my good bike shorts WITH ME next time. These stayed in Kim’s suitcase, which stayed in Colorado. My ass was killing me by the end, and did not heal up for a week afterward.
- I have never had chafing issues until this race. I need to figure out a better personal care / skin care system before the 350.
- No need for a light on the bicycle, an AA battery powered headlamp is perfectly adequate. I never turned my bar-mounted light on.
- Socks: I think I’d be better off with a liner sock, a VBL, a thick sock (but not as thick as the one I was wearing), and then the insulated RBH socks. I still have plenty of room in the boot even with the extra VBL.
- I brought way too much food, though I suppose it would be singing a different tune had the weather turned for the worse. Even so, I could have gotten away with a single freeze-dried meal and no gel. I tried one gel and it was really unappealing in the temperatures that I experienced.
- I would probably get a really big, warm, but light and packable pair of mittens and only bring those, and then bring 1 warmer pair of gloves, and a pair of 3-season mtb gloves. Regular mtb gloves might not be warm enough, even with pogies, for the trail after Winter Lake as my hands got pretty cold approaching the finish.
- I might want to replace the buff with a neoprene face mask
- My goggles were too dark. I knew this going in, but didn’t have the $ for a new pair. I’ll be keeping an eye on sales.
- I’d like to get rid of the glorified stuff sack on my back, and be more efficient in packing. I think a bigger frame bag and two fork-mounted bags would work great. This seemed to be a standard setup. I’d also use my Revelate Pocket. I took this off because it interferes with my bar mounted light, but I will only be using a headlamp next time. This might not work for races that involve more singletrack where I might want to use my bar mounted light.
- I’ll need more than just junk food for when I’m on the trail for a week. More experimentation with real food that works in the cold is in order.
Quotes (as best as I can remember them…):
“Miller lite, please” –Tedd Rowher, fellow 130 racer, at the Knik Bar, 1 hour before race start.
“You are off course!!!” –Text from my mother-in-law, sent when the bikers took the shortcut to the road. Sent to my phone, which I would not see until I had coverage again 2 days later, in Anchorage.
“We wouldn’t listen to a health inspector anyways.” –Purveyor of Yentna Station, when I questioned the health implications of letting me (a smelly racer) dump out my water in the sink that was in the kitchen where they were preparing food for the lodge guests.
“I’d rather it was dark. I don’t like being able to see where I’m going to be in 2 hours” –Chet Fehrmann, when discussing benefits of day vs night for lakes, swamps, and long straightaways.
“You’re an asshole” –Pam Todd, upon our reunion in Skewnta. At this point she still thought I knowingly blew by her without stopping to answer a question. We became friends again after my most sincere apologies and explanation of what happened.
“Don’t pee by the trail. It offends the guests.” –Worker at Winter Lake Lodge, moments before his two dogs peed* right by the trail. *Note: the pee marks were all dog-d**k in height.
“Wooohooo!” –Jill Martindale, passing me at 4am in a snowstorm on the Yentna River. That pretty much sums it up.